Book Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

on Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I made a comment after finishing the book that The Rithmatist is what happens when Brandon:

- Read Harry Potter
- Read The Name of the Wind
- Played a bunch of Starcraft 2
- Attended a college geometry class
- Had some fever dream, and thus The Rithmatist was born

If any of those things sound appealing to you, you might as well give the book a shot, because it's a pretty good one.

The premise is simple: there's a world that I'm pretty sure is Steampunk (it is only mentioned once, and it's that steampunk horse on the cover. No, it doesn't have anything to do with the main plotline, but I guess steampunk is "in" these days so you have to put it on the cover) but the real magic lies in chalk drawings. Rithmatists, which is "Arithmatists" but without the "A," can use chalk lines formed into specific geometric patterns to create magical, living...things. Lines can become walls or attack arrows. Drawn creatures can be minions that can attack or defend. In most cases, this magic is used for either duels (hence the Starcraft II comparison) where they build their own defenses (read: bases) and attack each other with lines or minions, or is used to hold back the wave of what is basically "rogue chalk minions" on some island to stop them from taking over the world. Actually, that second one is pretty important, because it's what all Rithmatists are training to do with their lives: serve on the front lines and then retire.

Our main hero is not a Rithmatist, but he attends a high-brow school where the Rithmatists are trained alongside normal students. The guy really wants to be a Rithmatist though, so much you'd say he's obsessed. He really wants to train with a Rithmatist teacher and, because this is a YA novel, he eventually does. But behold and lo, dear reader, for mystery is afoot! Somebody is offing the Rithmatist students in weird ways, and it's up to our hero, his inept love interest slash enemy slash friend slash girl bad at magic, and a washed-up professor to crack the case! Sound like Harry Potter, just a little? Yes? No? Well, it kind of is. Just a little.

To be honest, this book has a surprising lack of action considering it's a Brandon Sanderson novel, and I'm fine with that. I consider The Emperor's Soul to be his best work ever, and even in that novella the fight scene seemed tacked on. It's fun to follow the rag-tag group of mystery solvers as they try to crack the case and discover more about Rithromancy? Rithmamancy? Rithmatism? Whatever.

Speaking of things that are "un-Brandon Sanderson-like," this book is short. While I did feel the arch concluded in the right timeframe for the novel, I wished the whole thing had gone on a bit longer. Oh well, it leaves on a scene that exists just to bait a sequel (this is more Brandon Sanderson-esque), so you'll get the rest of the story in the second novel. And third one, if he goes that far.

My other major beef with the novel is the ending "twist," and not the first one about the killer but that other one. I won't say anything for spoilers, but it's absurdly lame and almost predictable, and exists only to push a second novel. It also sort of destroys any sense of closure that the book had been building up to, which makes a lot of it feel like a waste. I understand the need to get people excited for a second book, but I was already excited before this scene popped in and made me angry. Also, the final "battle" is anticlimactic compared to the one that happens literally one chapter before it, and seems tacked on to the end just to show how all the characters have grown and can work together now. Yawn.

Complaints aside, The Rithmatist is a solid Sanderson novel, and has everything that fans of his books want: cool magic, fun characters, a splash of humor, and plenty o' plot twists. If you like the guy's work you've probably already read it, but if you're on the fence I'd say take the plunge! It's a fun, fast read and is entertaining from cover to cover. Just...sort of turn your brain off for the ending.

Four out of five stars. 

Book Review: Strangers by Michaelbrent Collings

(Currently available On Kindle for $3.99)

Home invasion stories in the horror genre work because home is where we feel like we are safe. We have to, or else we wouldn't be able to sleep at night. Home, with those we love and care about, is a bastion from the dangers of the world, a sanctuary against the hustle and bustle of outside and where we feel confident we can help and protect one another.

So taking that and tossing it on its head is always an effective method to provide scares, even if it's a common trope.

Michaelbrent Collings has, by my count, nearly covered every single horror situation by this point, minus maybe the "creepy dark haired Japanese girl" one. From foggy towns to haunted houses, insane parents to vicious fairies and vampires, to ghosts and demons and now home invasions, he's got all his bases covered. But that's a good thing, because even if the premise is something familiar, Michaelbrent does an excellent job in all his novels of taking a tried-and-true horror concept and making it his own. And Strangers is no exception.

Were I to elevator pitch the novel, it would be "The Strangers" meets "Saw." A family, innocent on the outside but harboring deep dark secrets on the inside, is trapped inside their home as an unknown assailant wrecks havoc on them. Anything else would be potential spoilers, just know that the secrets the harbor are dark, and lead to horrific consequences. While the underlying "goal" of the main villain might be predictable, there are still plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep you gripping the novel, including a rather large double (and then triple) twist at the end that felt perfect for this type of horror novel.

The pacing is, as usual, phenomenal. Once you get into the "meat and potatoes" of the book, Michaelbrent has his metaphorical hooks in you, and it's hard to quit before its over. I've always seen that a sign of an excellent writer if he can keep me gripped to my kindle all the way to the end, ignoring dishes, chores, or even sleep because I "have to know what happens next." Strangers accomplishes this, and in spaces, with one minor exception: the beginning. While the prologue chapter is a ghastly scene that does well in setting up the nightmare to come, there is a lot of idle time spent before the monster actually appears. That and the final portions of the novel do seem to drag a little (this is a long horror book), but if you persevere through the slow start the novel is absolutely worth it.

I made a comment in my review of Darkbound that the gore escalation in Michaelbrent's novels is a bit off putting, and I'm pleased to say that Strangers doesn't fall in the same trap. While there are several grotesque and graphic scenes, most are done in a way that they're actually scary rather than just desensitizing, with most of the horror in the book delightfully gore-free. I think Michaelbrent found the balance between Rising Fears and Darkbound, which makes this an appealing book for those who like both psychological and gore-scares.

Strangers is a great spin on the home invasion novel. While nothing is particularly novel in and of itself, the book is absolutely gripping, the horror and tension real, and the ending twists loads of scary fun. If you're looking for a fast-paced read for that dark evening at home, you couldn't do much better. Just be sure to lock the windows and doors before you do (but won't help!).

Four out of five stars.